Reserve Text: from Buckner Trawick, Literature of the Bible: The Old Testament and the Apocrypha. New York: Harper and Rowe, 1970
Rise and Fall
of the Monarchy
After the death
of Joshua, as the need for a strong central government in Israel became
clear, the monarchy was established under Saul. The history of the Hebrew
people from the period before Saul until the time of the Exile in 586
B.C. is related in Judges, I and II Samuel, and I and II Kings.
TOWARD NATIONAL UNITY AND SECULAR GOVERNMENT
It is believed that the composition of the book of Judges went through the following stages: 1 (1) Between 1200 and 900 B.C. historical stories and legends developed, many of them in the form of narrative poems. (2) These were transmitted orally for a few centuries, and then they were converted into prose tales, possibly by the authors of the J and E documents.* (3) At some time during the eighth or the seventh century B.C., an unidentified editor (possibly the one who conflated the J and E documents) combined the separate tales into a continuous narrative. (4) The Deuteronomist** re-edited most of the material now making up Judges 2:6-16:31, probably about 621 B.C. (5) In the latter part
*See above, pp. 49-51, the discussion of the growth of the Hexateuch.
**See above, pp. 50 and 76-80, the discussion of the D Document and the book of Deuteronomy.
The book of Joshua
leaves the impression that by the time of the death of the titular hero,
the Hebrew tribes had pretty well subdued most of Canaan and had organized
themselves into a united nation under one leader. The book of Judges,
on the contrary, gives a picture of the tribes frequently squabbling
with each other and continually fighting against their non-Hebrew neighbors.
Biblical scholars are inclined to believe that Judges gives the more
The book is not,
however, an entirely reliable history. Much of its material belongs
to the realm of folklore: the chronology is confused; and many of the
tales are colored by the editors' desire to point a moral.
The three main
parts of the book are: (1) the introduction (1:1-2:5); (2) a cycle of
stories about the lives and the times of the twelve (or thirteen if
"King" Abimelech is counted) judges who presided over some
of the Israelites after the death of Joshua (2: 6-16: 31), and (3) the
two appendixes, concerned respectively with the migration of the Danites
(17-18) and the offense of Gibeah (19-21).
Introduction to the Book (1:1-2:5). The first portion of the book
of Judges is an attempt by the post-Exilic editor to furnish a transition
between the book of Joshua and the Deuteronomist's tales of the twelve
judges. It tells of several conquests in the land of Canaan, some of
which have already been related in the book of Joshua.
Tales about the
Judges (2:6-16:31). The longest and by far the most significant portion
of the book deals with the adventures of the judges themselves. This
section uses a review of the funeral of Joshua to emphasize the fact
that a new era began soon after the death of that hero. Next, the cycle
of stories about the judges is set into a sort of didactic framework:
each story is made to illustrate the Deuteronomist's favorite thesis:
that God is just and will punish his people when they sin against him,
but is merciful and will send aid when they are obedient or repent and
beg for deliverance. Every story is introduced by an almost stereotyped
formula: "And the children of Israel did evil in the sight of the
Lord. ...And the anger of the Lord was hot against Israel, and
These judges and the passages which tell of their exploits are designated in the following table:
Of this number,
Sharngar, Tola, lair, Ibzan, Elon, and Abdon are sometimes' known as
the "minor" judges. Abimelech is called a "king,"
(9:6); some commentators, however, include him in the list of judges.
3:7-11). Othniel, the first of the twelve judges, is renowned for
his military expoits (he captures Debir, receiving Caleb's daughter
for his wife as a reward, and later rescues the Israelites from a neighboring
EHUD THE TYRANNICIDE (3:12-30). Once when the people do evil, they are forced by God to serve Eglon, King of Moab, for eighteen years. Then Ehud, chosen to deliver Israel's tribute to Eglon, conceals a two-edged dagger beneath his clothes and deceives Eglon by pretending that he has a secret which nobody but the king must hear. Ehud says: "I have a message from God unto thee." Now, "Eglon was a very fat man. ...And Ehud put forth his left hand, and took the dagger from his right thigh, and thrust it into his belly; and the haft also went in after the blade; and the fat closed upon the blade, so that he could not draw the dagger out of his belly; and the dirt came out." After so daring a feat, Ehud rallies the Israelites and leads them in a victorious battle against Moab.
PROPHETESS (Chs. 4-5). Far more renowned than Ehud is Deborah, prophetess
and judge, whose religious fervor and "flaming patriotism"
3 inspire the soldier Barak to lead Israel's
Now the Israelites
have been cruelly oppressed by Canaan for twenty years. Deborah convinces
Barak that the Lord will give his people victory over Sisera on Mount
Tabor, by the river Kishon, where Sisera's "nine hundred chariots
of iron" will be ineffective. A battle takes place, and Deborah's
prophecy is fulfilled: all of Sisera's men are killed, and Sisera himself
finds refuge in the tent of a Hebrew woman named Jael, who pretends
friendship but kills him while he sleeps.
These events, related
in unadorned prose in Chapter 4, become the subject of a brilliant victory
song in Chapter 5, known as the "Song of Deborah and Barak"
There is no other
poem in Hebrew literature, whether early or late, which displays such
seemingly unconscious and spontaneous literary art. The intense patriotic
and religious passion of its writer flames in every line, sweeping on
and up to the dramatic climax. It is throughout both an ancient Te Deum
in praise of the God of Israel and a superb account of a mighty contest
in which not only kings fought, but the stars of heaven and a river
in its divinely swollen course. ... Nothing is finer in the annals of
war of any literature than this, nor has it been excelled in imagination
or in expression by any of the later war poems of Israel.4
to join in the
battle. The third and most ecstatic part of the ode (5: 19-31) begins
with a litotes full of grim and exultant humor:*
The climax of the whole story is the slaying of Sisera. Wearied beyond endurance and fearful for his life, he asks Jael for shelter and protection. She calms his fears by bringing him better refreshment than he requests:
GIDEON THE SHREWD (6:1-8:32). The tale of Gideon is an exciting and melodramatic tale. About 1100 B.C. the Midianites, Amalekites, and other "children of the east" were continually
Now Gideon plans
a surprise attack by night. He gives each man a torch (concealed in
a pitcher) and a trumpet. This group then surrounds the Midianite camp.
In the dead of night at a signal from Gideon, all three hundred wave
the torches on high, break the pitchers (to sound like the clashing
of armor), blow on the trumpets, and cry out: "The sword of the
Lord, and of Gideon!" Believing themselves surrounded by a mighty
army, the Midianites flee in panic, and the Lord sets "every man's
sword against his fellow." The rout is complete. The next day the
Ephraimites aid in "mopping up." Never again are the Israelites
molested by the robbers of Midian.
The picture of
Gideon is a rather attractive one. To be sure, he is cruel and sometimes
vengeful: he captures and executes the two princes and the two kings
of the Midianites, and he punishes the elders of Succoth (for their
refusal to feed his
ABIMELECH (8:33-9:57). Son of Gideon and a concubine from the city
of Shechem, the cruel and treacherous Abimelech murders all his legitimate
half-brothers except Jotham who escapes death by going into hiding.
Then he is made king by the men of Shechem. Somewhat later his subjects
revolt and are ruthlessly destroyed. While besieging an enemy city,
Abimelech himself is grievously wounded by a woman who fractures his
skull with a piece of millstone; he orders one of his soldiers to slay
him so that posterity will not say that he was killed by a woman.
Of greater literary
interest than the story of Abimelech itself is the famous Fable of Jotham
(9:7-21), one of the rare instances of this type of folklore in the
Bible.o When Abimelech is made king, Jotham (from a safe distance --
"on the top of Mount Gerizim") tells how the bramble accepted
the position as king of trees after the olive tree, the fig tree, and
the vine all had refused the offer of the crown. The bramble then warned
the trees that if they were disloyal, he, the bramble, would destroy
them all with fire. Jotham is, of course, pointing out to the Shechemites
that they have chosen a wicked and dangerous sovereign, and he prophesies
that Abimelech and his subjects will destroy each other.
JEPHTHAH THE RASH (10:6-12:7). The piteous tale of Jephthah and his daughter has always been a favorite with modern readers. It contains several elements which appear in the traditional literature of many nations: (1) "the rise to power of a banished hero";6 (2) the rash vow, especially a vow to sacrifice some-
Jephthah, of humble
birth (he is the son of a harlot), is driven from his native land (Gilead)
into the land of Tob. When oppressed by the Ammonites, the Gileadites
recall Jephthah and make him their leader. He vows to God that if he
is victorious, he will sacrifice as a burnt offering whoever comes first
out of his house to meet him on his return. He subdues the Ammonites,
and his only daughter (whose name is never mentioned) comes out to greet
him "with timbrels and with dances." Deep is his grief, but
after an interval of two months (during which time she dwells in the
mountains and bemoans her virginity), he carries out his vow. Each year
thereafter the women of Gilead spend four days lamenting the daughter
SAMSON THE MIGHTY
It is generally agreed that the stories of Samson constitute the literary
masterpiece of the book of Judges. Their central figure is not only
a typical legendary strong man but also a tragic hero.
The accounts of
Samson's exploits have several earmarks of folklore-exaggeration, practical
joking, posing of riddles, and broad, boisterous humor. Killing a thousand
Philistines with the jawbone of an ass, catching three hundred foxes
and tying torches to their tails in order to burn his enemies' grain
fields, pulling down a temple with his bare hands--such feats compare
with the mighty deeds of Hercules in Greek legends, of Thor in Norse
mythology, and of Paul Bunyan in American loggers' yarns.
If great physical strength and a penchant for practical joking were the only characteristics of Samson, then he would not be especially heroic; but his is the story of a devout and valorous man, who, chosen by God to deliver the Israelites from the Philistines, suffers ignominy and death at the hands of the cruel enemy. Consequently his downfall has inspired the creation of many noble works of art, notably Milton's Samson Agonistes, Handel's Samson, and Saint-Saens' Samson and Delilah.
An angel appears
unto the wife of one Manoah and tells her that she is going to conceive
and bear a son,** who will deliver
His first feat
is the slaying of a lion with his bare hands. This he accomplishes en
route to visit an unnamed Philistine woman. On his return he notices
a swarm of bees and some honey in the carcass of the lion. This suggests
to Samson a riddle, which he later poses to thirty Philistine men: "Out
of the eater came forth meat, and out of the strong came forth sweetness."
He wagers a "change of garments" with each that none of them
can solve the riddle. His sweetheart wheedles the answer from him and
divulges it to her countrymen. And wrathful Samson smites "thirty
men of them" (other Philistines) and uses their clothing to pay
off his wager.
as the Philistine woman is now called, is given by her father to another
man. It is at this time that Samson's fox-escapade destroys the fields
of the Philistines, who retaliate by burning at the stake Samson's wife
and her father. Samson takes revenge, first by slaughtering many of
the Philistines. When the Philistines attack the men of Judah, however,
he allows the latter to bind him and deliver him to the Philistines.
Then he breaks his bonds, seizes the jawbone of an ass, and with it
kills a thousand Philistines. Thereafter, he judges Israel in peace
for twenty years.
A subsequent adventure
takes place in Gaza, where Samson has fallen in love with Delilah, another
Philistine woman. Bribed by her fellow countrymen to find the secret
of Samson's great strength, Delilah uses her feminine wiles on the Hebrew
hero. Thrice he gives her false answers, and thrice he breaks the bonds
she puts on him. Then he foolishly tells her the truth-that the secret
of his might lies in his unshaven hair. As soon as he falls asleep,
the treacherous Delilah shaves his head and calls the Philistines, who
put out Samson's eyes, bind him in fetters, and throw him into prison.
Later, when his hair has grown long again, the Philistines add to the
degradation of the fallen hero by forcing him to play the fool. They
require him to amuse a great crowd gathered for a festival in honor
of their god Dagon. When he is led into the temple, Samson prays to
the Lord for strength so that he may avenge himself. God answers his
Samson leans with
all his might upon the middle pillars supporting the temple, and pushes
them down, so that the temple falls and kills three thousand Philistines
as well as Samson himself. Samson's brothers recover the body of the
hero and bury it.
Appendixes to the Book (Chs. 17-21). At the end of the book of Judges
are added two narratives which are unrelated to the exploits of the
judges but which tell about the same period in history.1
THE DANITES (Chs. 17-18). This
is an account of how the tribe of Dan (which up to this time has found
no place in which to settle) conquers the Sidonian city of Laish, renames
it "Dan," and then makes an ephod (0 to be worshiped. Perhaps
the strangest thing about the tale is that the author nowhere condemns
the Danites for idol-worship, but is content to remark: "In those
days there was no king in Israel, but every man did that which was right
in his own eyes."
OF GIBEAH (Chs. 19-21). This is a brutal story of revenge. The concubine
of a certain Levite of Mount Ephraim is raped to death by a group of
Benjamites in the city of Gibeah. The Levite cuts the body of the dead
woman into twelve pieces and sends each one to a different part of Canaan
in order to shock the various tribes into helping him seek vengeance.
The Israelites of other tribes gather "together as one man"--perhaps
an indication of increasing national unity.8 First they ask that the
offending group from Gibeah be put to death. When this is refused, they
wage war against the Benjamites and kill all but six hundred whom they
later provide with wives from Jabeshgilead and Shiloh.
I AND II SAMUEL
AND I KINGS 1-2: GROWTH OF MONARCHY TEMPERED BY THEOCRACY
The two books of
Samuel, plus the opening two chapters of I Kings, depict the transition
of the Hebrew nation from a loose confederation of tribes under the
semi-theocratic government of the judges into a unified monarchy. This
transition extended over slightly more than half a century (c. 1030-c.
973 B.C.). Another important development during the period was the rise
of prophets, lay leaders who in later centuries were destined to figure
the religious and political affairs of the Jewish people.
Samuel is perhaps
the finest narrative book in the Bible. The style of the book is simple;
the narrative, easy, unified, and progressive, incident following incident
as in a well-connected story. The details are always sufficient to make
the pictures and incidents vivid, distinct, and realistic, yet they
are never dry or cumbersome. But the chief glory of the book is its
masterly characterization. Here are real men and women, heroic enough
to have a godlike vision of truth and righteous behavior, yet they are
true citizens of the earth where there is nothing absolutely perfect.12
The books of Samuel
consist principally of the biographies of Samuel himself, of Saul, and
of David. These stories overlap each other, for each of the three main
characters becomes involved in the lives of the other two. In order
to present three unified cycles, some reorganization of Biblical material
Samuel the Kingmaker
13 (I Sam. 1-8 and 9-25, passim). Like the judges of earlier generations,
Samuel appears at a time of national emergency. The last of the judges
and one of the first of the prophets, he is at the same time a priest,
a soothsayer, a spokesman for God, and a political leader. In the two
latter roles he is a prototype of such great prophets as Elijah and
BIRTH AND CHILDHOOD
(I Sam. 1-3). The story opens with an account of the quasi-miraculous
conception of Samuel by Hannah.* This unhappy woman, one of the two
wives of Elkanah, cries to the Lord "in bitterness of soul"
because she is barren, and she promises the Lord that if he will give
her a son, she will dedicate him to God "all the days of his life."
Eli, the priest of the temple at Shiloh, who has watched her weeping
and praying silently, accuses her of drunkenness; she, of course, denies
the charge. The Lord grants her petition, and in due time Hannah triumphantly
presents the baby Samuel to Eli. Then follows Hannah's famous song of
praise (I Sam. 2:1-10).**
Hannah leaves Samuel with Eli in the temple at Shiloh; there the old priest brings him up in the service of the Lord. The historian gives an appealing picture of Hannah's coming once a year to offer a sacrifice and to bring a little coat for her son.
(I Sam. 4-8). When the Philistines wage a victorious battle against
the Israelites, thousands of the men of Israel (including the two sons
of Eli) are slain, and the Ark of the Covenant is captured. On hearing
of the disaster, Eli, now ninety-eight years old, falls dead. Samuel
succeeds him as judge of Israel.
The capture of
the Ark, though a major disaster to Israel, brings misfortune to the
Philistines. First, they set the Ark in the temple of their god Dagon,
but on the following morning the statue of Dagon is found fallen and
broken. The Ark is moved from Ashdod to Gath and then to Ekron, and
the inhabitants of these cities are smitten with a plague of emerods
(tumors ). In terror the Philistines abandon the Ark in Beths hemesh,
and it is reclaimed by the Israelites, who repent their sins and completely
subdue the enemy. Samuel thereafter judges Israelapparently in peace
and prosperity--for many years.
When he has grown
old, he turns the government over to his sons Joel and Abiah. But these
sons are corrupt, and they so "pervert judgment" that the
elders of Israel clamor for a monarch: "Make us a king to judge
us like all the nations." Samuel feels that the people have rejected
God as their king. He prays to the Lord but is instructed to give in
to the popular demand and to find a king of Israel; he is to warn the
people, however, of the evils of kingship.
(The warning which Samuel accord-
[I Sam. 8:11-18] is probably a reflection of the opinions of the Biblical
historian, writing in retrospect.)
RETIREMENT AND FURTHER PROPHETIC ACTIVITIES (I Sam. 9-25, passim). The remainder of Samuel's deeds belong more properly to the cycles of tales about Saul and David and therefore require only the briefest mention here. The old prophet anoints Saul to be king of Israel, but later on, reconsidering matters, turns against him and anoints David (instead of any of Saul's sons) as future successor to the throne. Thus, despite the establishment of a monarchy, Samuel continues to exercise a powerful influence on the political affairs of Israel all the days of his life. He dies during the reign of Saul (I Sam. 25: 1 ).
The son of a prosperous
farmer of the tribe of Benjamin, he is described as "a choice young
man, and a goodly. ..from his shoulders and upward he was higher than
any of the people" * (I Sam. 9:2). He evidently has a forceful
and attractive personality, for he succeeds in uniting the people and
in maintaining their loyalty throughout his reign. But he is subject
to fits of melancholia. He is the prey of his "complex and passionate
nature" which holds "within itself the seeds of despondency
and madness."15 Israel's debt to Saul is considerable, for in addition
to unifying the tribes, he wins important victories over nearly all
the nation's enemies, including the Philistines, and he establishes
a base on the east bank of the Jordan.
ANOINTING AND EARLY VICTORIES (I Sam. 9:1-10:27, 11:1-15, and 14:47-52). On a mission to find his father's lost asses, Saul seeks the advice of the seer Samuel ("he that is now called a Prophet was before time called a Seer"). The Lord tells Samuel that this tall and handsome youth is the one chosen to become king. Samuel anoints Saul with oil and announces to him God's
The new king's
first official act is to defeat the Ammonites who are besieging Jabesh-gilead.
Subsequently he leads his army victoriously against the Moabites, the
Ammonites, the Edomites, the kings of Zobah, and the Amalekites. He
repulses the Philistines, too, but is unable to put an end to their
raids on his land.
AND REJECTION (I Sam. 10:8, 13:8-14, and 15: 1-35). Modern commentators
are inclined to regard the Philistines' slaying of Saul and his sons
and David's accession to the throne of Israel as historical events which
require no explanation. The Deuteronomic historian, however, evidently
feels that Saul's failure to found a dynasty does need to be accounted
for, especially since God directed Samuel to anoint Saul, thereby enabling
him to become the potential progenitor of a dynasty.16 The historian's
usual explanation of a calamity is that it is a punishment inflicted
by God for wrongdoing. So Saul is charged with being guilty of two things:
usurpation of priestly functions and failure to obey divine commands.
Therefore Samuel, acting as God's agent, rejects Saul twice.
The first rejection
precedes a great battle against the Philistines. An important item in
the preparations for the conflict is the offering of a sacrifice to
God. The aged Samuel promises to be present to officiate, but fails
to appear at the appointed time. Saul himself presides at the offering.
On arrival, Samuel denounces Saul for usurping the priestly duties;
he proclaims that the kingdom shall be taken away from Saul and given
to another. In spite of the rebuke, Saul and his son Jonathan win a
great victory over the Philistines.
Now Samuel sends
Saul to destroy the Amalekites. He instructs the king to kill every
living thing-"man and woman, infant and suckling, ox and sheep,
camel and ass." Again Saul is victorious, but his soldiers bring
back alive some sheep and oxen to sacrifice to the Lord, and Saul spares
the life of Agag, the captive king of Amalek. In great wrath once more,
Samuel asks: "Hath the Lord as great delight in burnt offerings
and sacrifices, as in obeying the voice of the Lord? Behold, to obey
is better than sacrifice, and to hearken than the fat of rams."
DECLINE (I Sam.
16:14-23 and 18-27, passim). Having rejected Saul, Samuel anoints
David to be the successor to the throne. As the spirit of the Lord descends
upon David, it departs from Saul, and "an evil spirit from the
Lord" troubles him. Renounced by Samuel and even by God, well might
Saul be depressed. He calls for a musician to play for him and relieve
his melancholy. Ironically (or perhaps providentially), it is David
who is summoned. Immediately Saul learns to love him and soon makes
him his armor-bearer. Thereafter whenever the fit of melancholy falls,
David plays on the harp, and the evil spirit leaves Saul.
According to another
story,* Saul's melancholia is principally the result of his jealousy
over David's success as a soldier. To reward David for killing the giant
Goliath and for defeating the Philistines, Saul makes him a high officer
in the army. But when the women sing: "Saul hath slain his thousands,
and David his ten thousands," Saul's jealousy knows no bounds.
Twice he hurls a javelin at David, who each time eludes the weapon.
Again Saul sends messengers to kill David in his sleep, but Michal (Saul's
own daughter, who has been given to David in marriage) enables her husband
In the meantime, David has formed a close friendship with Jonathan, Saul's son, who tries to convince his father that David has done no wrong; but Saul will not listen, and David has to flee for his life. He finds refuge at one place and then another; Saul pursues him wherever he goes. David has an opportunity to kill Saul, but only cuts off a piece of the sleeping king's robe and later shows it to him from a distance. Saul is overwhelmed with remorse: "Is this thy voice, my son David?" He weeps and says to David: "Thou art more righteous than I: for thou hast rewarded me good, whereas I have rewarded thee evil." Unfortunately the remorse is short-lived, and the pursuit recommences. Again David has a chance to kill Saul, but declines to raise his hand against the Lord's anointed. At length David escapes to
DEATH (I Sam.
28 and 31 and II Sam. 1:1-16). Saul feels that his son Jonathan
and his daughter Michal have turned against him; he knows that his former
friend David has joined the enemy Philistines, and he suffers because
the Lord has forsaken him (Samuel, incidentally, has died during the
course of Saul's pursuit of David). Saul presents a pitiable figure
as he surveys the multitudes of Philistines arrayed against him at Gilboa.
He is afraid and his heart trembles. He seeks the aid of the Lord, but
the Lord does not answer him. There is bitter irony in Saul's next move.
He has formerly banished all soothsayers and sorcerers from his kingdom,
but now he seeks the aid of one of those he has banished. He employs
the witch of Endor to call up the spirit of Samuel. That spirit asks:
"Why hast thou disquieted me, to bring me up?" Saul answers:
"I am sore distressed; for the Philistines make war against me,
and God is departed from me, and answereth me no more, neither by prophets,
nor by dreams; therefore I have called thee, that thou mayest make known
unto me what I shall do." The spirit holds out no hope: the Philistines
will win the battle, Saul and his sons will be killed, and David will
take over the kingdom.
In a spirit of
desperation comparable to that of Macbeth meeting the hosts of Macduff
at Dunsinane, Saul joins in the battle against the Philistines. The
tale is briefly told by the historian. The men of Israel flee from the
enemy. Many of the Israelites are slain, including Saul's sons Jonathan,
Abinadab, and Melchishua. Saul himself falls upon his own sword; his
body is captured by the enemy, but is later retrieved by the Israelites,
burned, and the bones buried at Jabesh.
A different account
of Saul's death (apparently intended by the Biblical historian to be
understood as a mere story) is given in the first chapter of II Samuel.
Here an Amalekite comes to David and says that he himself slew Saul
at Saul's request. David has the Amalekite killed for slaying the Lord's
of the Royal Line (I Sam. 16-30, passim and II Sam.-1 Kings 2). David
was incomparably the greatest of the Hebrew kings. An able military
leader and an astute administrator of public affairs, he extended the
boundaries of the country to their greatest limit (including areas in
Transjordan to the east
and to Tyre in
the north), inspired the fear and respect of foreign neighbors, established
the national capital at Jerusalem, filled the coffers of the royal treasury,
and founded a dynasty which was to rule for more than four hundred years.
It is not surprising that the reign of David is traditionally regarded
as the most glorious era in Jewish history or that it was the Davidic
line from which, during centuries of oppression, the Hebrews expected
The Biblical historian
devotes about half of I Samuel and virtually all of II Samuel to the
stories of David's public achievements and private affairs.
RISE TO FAME (1 Sam. 16:1-18:16). After rejecting Saul, the Lord
directs Samuel to go to Bethlehem and there to anoint one of the sons
of Jesse (which of the sons God does not designate) as future king.
The historian gives an exciting account: Samuel says that he fears to
go lest Saul kill him; the Lord tells him to pretend that he is going
merely to offer a sacrifice. The elders of Bethlehem tremble at Samuel's
unexpected appearance in their town, and they ask him: "Com est
thou peaceably?" He assures them that his mission is peaceful and
invites them to a sacrifice. He sends a special invitation to Jesse
and his sons. The people sense the significance of the situation, and
as the eldest of Jesse's sons comes forth, they whisper: "Surely
the Lord's anointed is before him." One by one, seven stalwart
sons are presented to the old seer. When Samuel asks whether these are
all of Jesse's children, Jesse answers that only the youngest remains
and that he is keeping the sheep. Samyel says, "Send and fetch
him." This one is David, and when he appears--"ruddy, and
withal of a beautiful countenance, and goodly to look to"--the
Lord says, "Arise, anoint him: for this is he."
him, and thenceforth the spirit of the Lord dwells upon David.
The next appearance of David (1 Sam. 16:14-23, discussed above) is as Saul's musician and armor-bearer. The historian now evidently draws upon another source of information, for a conflicting story is told of David's introduction to the court of Saul. The Israelites are once again at war with the Philistines, who are led by Goliath, a mighty champion nearly ten feet high. This giant mocks the people of Israel and, challenges them to produce somebody suitable to meet him in
DAVID AND JONATHAN
(I Sam. 18:1-4,19:1-7,20:1-42,23:16-18; II Sam. 1:17-27, 4:4, and 9:1-13).
In the meantime, David has formed a close friendship with Saul's son
Jonathan. The historian says that Jonathan's soul is "knit with
the soul of David" and that Jonathan loves him ''as his own soul."
Jonathan gives David his robe and other garments, "even to his
sword, and to his bow, and to his girdle." When Saul tries to kill
David, Jonathan warns his friend to hide and then attempts to convince
Saul that David is innocent of any offense. He espouses David's cause
with such warmth that Saul is provoked to anger. Saul calls Jonathan
the "son of a perverse rebellious woman" and tries vainly
to kill him with a javelin. Jonathan hastens to David's hiding place
and advises him to flee. After they have bidden each other a tearful
farewell, David departs into exile. Only once more do they see each
other, and then for just a short time while David is hiding in the wilderness.
The deaths of Jonathan and Saul inspire one of the finest
poems in the Bible--the
only one except for a brief elegy over Absalom (according to the noted
literary scholar Mary Ellen Chase17) that may be attributed unquestionably
to David. It is a dirge laden with deep personal sorrow:
(II Sam. 2-8 and 10). Soon after Saul is killed in battle, God directs
David to return to his native land. A delegation from the tribe of Judah
meets him and proclaims him king; he sets up his capital at Hebron.
The other tribes, however, adhere to Ishbosheth, one of Saul's sons.
Civil war follows, Ishbosheth is slain, and David is accepted by all
the tribes as their king (II Sam. 5:1).
One of his first acts as king of a united Israel is to conquer the fortified city of Jerusalem (or Zion), held by the Jebusites; this he makes his new capital (II Sam. 5:6-9). He brings here the
In the court at
Jerusalem are several interesting people who are to play significant
roles in the drama of David's public and domestic life: Joab, the commander
of the army--treacherous, ruthless, and vengeful; Nathan, a bold and
upright prophet, who fears the Lord more than he does David; and Abiathar,
a learned and observant priest (and possibly the royal historian).
Surrounded by these
and many other devoted followers, David begins a reign which, though
destined to be long and glorious, is marred by foreign wars and internal
rebellions. At different times David defeats the Moabites, the Syrians,
the Edomites, and the Ammonites.
DAVID AND MICHAL (I Sam. 18:17-27, 19:11-17,25:44; II Sam. 3:13-16, 6:16-23). David has many wives and many children, and some of these bring him great sorrow. One of the most pathetic domestic stories is concerned with Michal, his first wife. Soon after Saul has grown jealous of David's popularity, Saul learns that his own daughter Michal loves David. Perceiving a way in which he may be able to destroy his rival, Saul agrees to the match provided that David will give him as a "marriage gift"* a hundred foreskins of the Philistines. David accepts the proposal, kills not one hundred but two hundred Philistines, presents their foreskins to Saul, and marries Michal. In his jealous hatred, Saul sends some henchmen to kill David, apparently before the marriage is consummated.18 Michal learns of the approach of the assassins, deceives them by placing a dummy in David's bed, and enables David to escape by letting him down through a window. While David is in exile, Saul gives Michal to Phalti (or Phaltiel or Pal tiel), to whom she transfers her love and with whom she lives for several years. During this period David acquires several wives and concubines. When he becomes king, he takes Michal away from Phalti, who is heartbroken over having to give her up: he goes "with her along weeping behind her. ..." Michal is later said to despise David
"in her heart"
when she sees him, clad only in a priest's apron, "leaping and
dancing" to celebrate the coming of the Ark to Jerusalem. She greets
him with the sarcastic gibe: "How glorious was the king of Israel
today, who uncovered himself today in the eyes of the handmaids of his
servants, as one of the vain fellows shamelessly uncovereth himself!"
David punishes her by refusing thenceforth to cohabit with her. Thus
the matter ends unhappily for all involved.
DAVID AND BATHSHEBA
(II Sam. 11-12). David is guilty of a most reprehensible act as
the result of his passion for a woman:
One year during
the season "when kings go forth to battle,"* David himself
stays in Jerusalem but sends his army, under Joab, to fight the Ammonites.
While on the roof of his palace, he looks down into a neighboring courtyard
and sees a woman bathing, and the woman is "very beautiful to look
upon." He ascertains that she is Bathsheba, the wife of Uriah the
Hittite. Ignoring the fact that she belongs to another man, David has
her brought to his palace and makes her his mistress. When she later
reveals to him that she is going to bear a child, he gives orders that
Uriah be put into the "hottest" part of the battlefront and
that the other soldiers "retire" from him, "that he may
be smitten, and die." All happens as David has planned: Uriah is
killed, and David marries Bathsheba.
Retribution follows this act of injustice. Believing that the Lord is not only the God of the Covenant and the Hebrew God of battle but also a Deity interested in righteous behavior, the historian tells us that David's deed has so displeased the Lord that the Lord sends the prophet Nathan to rebuke David. Nathan tells David a story about a rich man and a poor man. The former had "exceeding many flocks and herds," but "the poor man had nothing, save one little ewe lamb, which he had bought and nourished up: and it grew up together with him, and with his children; it did eat of his own meat, and drank of his own cup, and lay in his bosom, and was unto him as a daughter." When entertaining a traveler, the rich man spared his own flock, killed the poor man's ewe lamb, and served it. On hearing this tale of injustice, David is angry and vows to have the rich man restore the
* Biblical scholars are in disagreement as to whether ancient Oriental kings "went to battle" in the springtime when the weather was propitious, or whether they went in the fall when all crops had been harvested.
DAVID AND ABSALOM
(II Sam. 13-19). Some of David's other children bring great sorrow
to their father. Amnon conceives a violent passion for his half-sister
Tamar, a virgin. He pretends illness and asks that Tamar bring food
to him. As soon as he and she are alone, he ravishes her. When Absalom,
Tamar's full brother, hears of the outrage, he plots vengeance against
Amnon. For two years he awaits a favorable opportunity. At last he invites
all of David's sons to a sheepshearing. Amnon attends, and when he is
"merry with wine," Absalom's servants kill him. Absalom himself
flees into Syria. David is grief-stricken over the death of Amnon, but
apparently mourns even more over the absence of his son Absalom (13:38-39).
After Absalom has
remained in exile three years, David sends Joab to bring him back to
Jerusalem; but David refuses to see his son for two more years. Absalom
summons Joab to come to him, hoping that he can persuade the trusted
general to intercede for him; but Joab will not corne. Absalom spitefully
sets fire to Joab's barley field. At length Joab does persuade David
to see Absalom, and apparently father and son are reconciled.
is bitter and disaffected, ambitious and revengeful. Knowing that neither
primogeniture nor hereditary succession to the kingship has been established
in the new kingdom, he decides to employ his own methods for usurping
the throne. He acquires "chariots and horses, and fifty men to
run before him" (the ancient equivalent of Hitler's "storm
troopers"), makes rash promises to every malcontent, disparages
his father's abilities, and soon steals "the hearts of the men
of Israel" (15:6). When he feels that he has a sufficiently large
following, he goes to Hebron (under the pretext of fuIRlling a religious
vow), and from this former capital of Judah he sends out messengers
all over the country to announce: "Absalom reigneth in Hebron."
The conspiracy thrives. Many men, including Ahithophel, one of David's
trusted counselors, join Absalom.
disaster and perhaps seeking a more strategic military position,19 David
flees from Jerusalem, taking with him his family, the priests Zadok
and Abiathar, the Levites, and the Ark of the Covenant. Then he decides
to have Zadok and Abiathar carry the Ark back to the city; these two
and Hushai, another faithful supporter, are to remain in Jerusalem as
his spies and informants. Absalom triumphantly moves into the capital.
David's band continues
its flight and crosses the Jordan into the land of Gilead. Ahithophel
advises Absalom to let him pursue David with twelve thousand men. Hushai,
pretending to be a deserter from David's camp, disagrees with Ahithophel
and advises Absalom to gather a great host from all over Israel and
to lead the host himself. When Absalom follows the advice of Hushai,
Ahithophel hangs himself.
some of the Gileadites and Ammonites, David makes a stand at the wood
of Ephraim and prepares to fight against the rebel army. Before the
battle he warns his men not to harm his traitorous son: "Deal gently
for my sake with the young man, even with Absalom." The fighting
now begins, and the rebels are ignominiously defeated. In the course
of the battle Absalom himself is riding on a mule. As he passes under
an oak, his head is caught in a fork of the tree, the mule runs from
under him, and he is left hanging helpless. When the news of this event
reaches Joab,he hurries to the spot, and, in spite of David's injunction
to spare the young man, hurls three darts into Absalorn's heart. Then
he buries the body in a pit.
When David hears
of his son's death, his grief is crushing. The lament that he utters
is one of the most heart--rending cries in all literature: "0 my
son Absalom, my son, my son Absalom! would God I had died for thee,
0 Absalom, my son, my son!"
David and all his band return to Jerusalem. Joab is apparently forgiven
for disobedience and allowed to remain in an influential position. David
pardons many of those who refused to follow him--including the lame
Mephibosheth; and he rewards the Gileadites and others who have supported
him. The rebellion is at an end.
YEARS AND DEATH (II Sam. 20-24; I Kings 1-2). As David approaches
old age, there are several occurrences which prevent his reign from
being tranquil: a revolt of the northern tribes (II Sam. 20), a three-year
famine (II Sam.
In the account
of one of the battles against the Philistines, the historian records
an incident which adds to the attractiveness of David's character. The
aging king voices a longing for some of the water from the well beside
the gate of Bethlehem, now held by the Philistines. At the risk of their
lives David's three mightiest men break through the enemy lines, procure
some of the water, and bring it back to David. Deeply touched, David
will not drink, but pours the water out, saying, "Be it far from
me, O Lord, that I should do this: is not this the blood of the men
that went in jeopardy of their lives?"
When David reaches
extreme old age, he is adjudged by political and religious experts to
be senile and unfit to rule. He is willing to abdicate (I Kings 1:48),
but when the choice of a successor must be made, his advisers split
into two factions. One faction (including Joab and Abiathar) supports
Adonijah, the eldest surviving son; succession by primogeniture, however,
has not yet been established as a custom in Israel. The other faction
supports Bathsheba's son Solomon. When Bathsheba hears that Adonijah
has attracted a large following and has had himself proclaimed king,
she and Nathan go to David and remind him of an old promise 20 to make
Solomon his successor. David orders Nathan to anoint Solomon, messengers
to blow trumpets, and the people to shout: "God save king Solomon!"
When Adonijah hears the uproar, he flees to the Temple and begs Solomon's
mercy. Temporarily Solomon allows him to depart in peace.
David charges his
son Solomon to obey God's commandments. After a reign of "forty"
years, David dies and is buried in Jerusalem.
with Bathsheba until she agrees to request Solomon to give him Abishag
as his wife (Abishag is a young woman who has been appointed to sleep
with David and so keep him warm in his old age). Solomon construes the
request as a sign of royal pretensions on Adonijah's part (inasmuch
as it was an ancient Semitic custom for a new king to take over his
predecessors women) ,21 and he has Adonijah executed. He also orders
the banisl1illent of Abiathar; and, obeying an injunc-
Thus Solomon establishes
The writing and
revising of I and II Kings was a long process, perhaps extending over
nearly eight centuries.22 The principal steps seem to have been as follows:
A short while before
the death of King Josiah of Judah (609 B.C.), some writer whose name
is unknown composed the major portion of I and II Kings (I Kings 2:1-12,
3-22 and II Kings 1:1-23:25a). He drew on the following no-longer-extant
At some time between
610 and 538 B.C. two successive editors of strong Deuteronomic tendencies
revised the manuscript, adding the conclusion (II Kings 23:25b-25:30)
and interpolating many passages of northern origin, especially those
relating to Ahab, Elijah, and Elisha.
There is evidence
that various post-Exilic editors continued to revise the books of Kings-perhaps
as late as the middle of the second century B.C. At some unknown date
the passages which now form I Kings 1 and 2 were severed from the manuscript
of II Samuel and made to serve as an introduction to the reign of Solomon.
The purpose of
the original compiler (probably in 610 B.C.) was to prove the necessity
of obeying the Deuteronomic law. He
The author's method
is clear and consistent. First he tells of the reign of Solomon. Then,
after the division of the country into the kingdoms of Israel and Judah,
he tries to deal contemporaneously with the events of both kingdoms;
that is, he begins with the accession of one king, tells about the events
in his reign, and then goes on to the history of the other kingdom during
the same period. For each king of Judah he gives the date of accession
(in "terms of the year of the reigning king of Israel" 24),
the age of the king at the time of his accession, the name of the queen
mother, and a summary of the king's attitude toward the Deuteronomic
law. For each king of Israel he gives the date of accession (in terms
of the year of the reigning king of Judah), the name of his capital,
the length of his reign, and his opinion of the king's ethical and religious
nature. This framework is readily adaptable to the author's didactic
Although I and
II Kings make up "a religious philosophy of... history rather than
a history proper, yet as always with the Jewish writers the ideas are
conveyed through such vivid pictures of concrete personalities that
the latter have for us a value in themselves over and above the principles
they are designed to illustrate." 25
The two books of
Kings exhibit the Jewish nation at its peak of fame and prosperity under
Solomon, its division into two kingdoms, its moral and spiritual decay
(a decay arrested from time to time by the efforts of prophets and "good"
kings), its growing fear of invasion by Assyria and Babylonia, and,
finally, its complete subjugation by those foreign powers. During this
period of about four centuries, the role of the prophets--those lay
spokesmen for God-increased in importance, so that sometimes they wielded
great political influence and vied with the
groups for the religious and ethical leadership of the people. At all
times, religion, not mere political organization, united the Hebrew
people, even when they were physically divided into separate kingdoms.
The laws, rights, and duties of the kings were set forth as only one
portion, not the main portion, of the religious tradition.
Age" of Solomon (I Kings 3-11). In the description by the Biblical
historian, the reign of Solomon (c. 960-c. 922 B.C.) was the "Golden
Age" of Israel-an era of peace and prosperity, when the people
were "eating and drinking, and making merry" (I Kings 4:20)
and when they "dwelt safely, every man under his vine and under
his fig tree" (I Kings 4:25). The boundaries of the kingdom stretched
from the Euphrates to the land of the Philistines and on to the borders
of Egypt (I Kings 4: 21 ). Modern historians, however, suspect that
the era was one of false prosperity, that Solomon's lavish expenditures
brought the nation to the verge of bankruptcy, and that his conscription
of labor and the levying of high taxes (as well as his later tolerance
of foreign gods) caused much popular unrest, ending in the division
of the kingdom at Solomon's death. They point out that, except in the
capital, most of the kingdom did not enjoy great prosperity most of
the time. Towns at a distance from Jerusalem had a poor, peasant economy
(in contrast to Solomon's wealth and imported luxuries) without extremes
of utter poverty and great riches. Prior to the eighth century, debtors
and the poor had to be protected, reducing somewhat the disparity between
rich and poor. On the other hand, defaulting debtors might have to become
slaves. (But religious tradition made it a capital crime to kidnap an
Israelite in order to sell him into slavery.)
SOLOMON'S WISDOM AND RICHES (I Kings 3-4 and 9:10-10:29). According to the Biblical author, the greatest glories of the epoch are the splendor of the court and the wisdom of the sovereign: "King Solomon exceeded all the kings of the earth for riches and for wisdom" (I Kings 10: 23). His wisdom is a special gift of God. Soon after Solomon ascends the throne, the Lord appears to him in a dream and asks what gift he would like to have. Already wise, Solomon answers, "Give therefore thy servant an understanding heart to judge thy people, that I may discern between good and bad; for who is able to judge this thy
so great a people?"
Because he has requested wisdom rather than long life or wealth, God
promises to give him not only wisdom but also riches and honor.
The first manifestation
of Solomon's great probity is his famous decision concerning the disputed
child: each of two harlots claims to be the mother of a little boy.
When Solomon offers to split the child into two pieces, one of them
agrees but the other quickly relinquishes her claim. Solomon gives the
boy to the latter.
wisdom excelled the wisdom of all the children of the east country,
and all the wisdom of Egypt. For he was wiser than all men. ...And he
spake three thousand proverbs: and his songs were a thousand and five."*
As for his opulence,
he has forty thousand stalls of horses, fourteen hundred chariots, a
throne made of ivory overlaid with gold, golden drinking vessels, and
golden shields. He makes "silver to be in Jerusalem as stones,
and cedars made he to be as the sycamore trees that are in the vale,
for abundance." In other words, gold is so plentiful that silver
is considered of little value. (Modern archaeological discoveries indicate,
however, that copper mining was probably one of the main sources of
Solomon's wealth. Control over copper districts intensified conflict
between Israel and Edam.) He imports cedars from Lebanon, gold from
Ophir, linen from Egypt, and ivory, apes, and peacocks from Tarsus.
The point stressed by the historian is that Solomon's commerce extends
to three continents: Asia, Africa, and Europe.
An effective climax
to the summary of Solomon's splendor and wisdom is given in the famous
account of the visit of the queen of Sheba.** Having heard much of his
renown, this woman travels to Jerusalem to learn whether the tales she
has heard have been accurate. Rich herself, she is not likely to be
impressed by any ordinary display of wealth, but when she sees the house
of Solomon (he has built his magnificent temple prior to her visit),
the food on his table, the apparel of his attendants, and all the other
luxury with which
he is surrounded, there is "no more spirit in her ." She is
equally astounded by his wisdom: there is no question which she can
ask that he cannot answer.
Her summary of
her admiration is eloquent: "It was a true report that I heard
in mine own land of thy acts and of thy wisdom. Howbeit I believed not
the words, until I came, and mine eyes had seen it: and, behold, the
half was not told me: thy wisdom and prosperity exceedeth the fame which
OF THE TEMPLE (I Kings 5-9). To the devout Hebrew historian, the
building of the Temple at Jerusalem is an event of supreme importance.
The Temple will centralize the worship of the Lord in one spot and will
do away with the worship in local shrines--the "high places."
Now the Lord has
promised David that his son would build the Temple. Solomon happily
undertakes the task. He engages the services of Hiram, king of Tyre,
who agrees to furnish the wood. Solomon conscripts an army of more than
180,000 workmen-stone-cutters, wood choppers, and burden bearers. After
seven years of labor the Temple is finished. It is a large and elaborate
structure, made chiefly of stone, cedar, and cypress, decorated with
carvings of cherubim, of palm trees, and of flowers, covered with gold.
(The plan and methods of building are believed to have been Phoenician,
and similar walls with three rows of stone and cedar beams have been
excavated in Syria). Solomon celebrates the completion of the Temple
with a great festival, a sacrificial offering (of 22,000 oxen and 120,000
sheep), and a long prayer of dedication and blessing.
SOLOMON'S APOSTASY AND DEATH (I Kings 11). Although he is said to be incomparably wise and although he is a devout worshiper of the Lord, Solomon is guilty of great and foolish transgressions: he allows his wives to "turn away his heart after other gods." He has seven hundred wives and three hundred concubines. Many of these are foreigners, who persuade him to build altars and burn incense and offer sacrinces to such deities as Ashtoreth of the Sidonians, Milcom and Molech of the Ammonites, and Chemosh of the Moabites. The Lord tells Solomon that as a punishment the kingdom will be divided and most of it given to another line of kings. God punishes him further by inciting the kings of Edom and Syria to rebel against him. After
years, Solomon dies and is succeeded by his son Rehoboam.
Kingdom (I Kings 12-22). When the people convene to proclaim Rehoboam
king, they petition him to lighten the burdens of taxation and forced
labor which his father Solomon had placed on them. His wise old counselors
warn him to do as the people request, but Rehoboam is induced to maintain
and even to increase oppressive taxes by his rash young friends, who
advise him to say to the people: "My little finger shall be thicker
than my father's loins. And now whereas my father did lade you with
a heavy yoke, I will add to your yoke: my father hath chastised you
with whips, but I will chastise you with scorpions."*
In the meantime, Jeroboam, an exiled henchman of Solomon's who had once been in charge of the forced labor, has returned from Egypt. Now the ten northern tribes revolt against Rehoboam and choose Jeroboam as their king. The latter sets up his capital at Shechem; his kingdom is called "Israel." The tribes of Benjamin and Judah remain faithful to Rehoboam; his realm is known henceforth as "Judah."
The kingdom of
Judah continues under the Davidic dynasty during its entire existence
as a nation, except for one brief interval (the reign of Athaliah, 842-837
B.C.). Twice it wages war against its sister kingdom Israel; and twice
it allies itself with Israel against Syria. Edom gains its independence
from Judah. In the eighth century B.C. under Ahaz and Hezekiah, the
Southem Kingdom appeases Assyria by paying tribute. In the early years
of the sixth century Judah becomes entangled in alliances with Egypt
and thereby provokes Nebuchadrezzar of Babylon to overrun the country,
to take many captives, and to bum Jerusalem (586 B.C.).
The history of the Northern Kingdom is more turbulent than that of Judah. During its existence of two hundred years, nineteen monarchs of nine different dynasties rule the land. Seven kings are assassinated. The capital is moved from Shechem to
SOVEREIGNS OF THE SOUTHERN KINGDOM (JUDAH)
In the Southern
Kingdom the center of Yahweh-worship is, of course, the Temple in Jerusalem.o
Worship at local shrines, such as groves and "high places,"
is, in the eyes of the Deuteronomic editors, an abominable practice,
and the designation of each king of Judah as either "good"
or "bad" depends primarily on whether he prohibits or condones
such practice. Although Solomon and some of his successors are said
to have worshiped idols and nonHebrew deities, such worship is less
widespread in the Southern Kingdom than in the Northern. Lacking a central
temple, the people of the Northern Kingdom worship at various shrines
of Yahweh, and furthermore, they are rather easily persuaded to shift
their allegiance from Yahweh to foreign deities. The worship of false
gods and the prevalence of social injustice and of personal immorality
help occasion the rise of prophets, who, often in opposition to the
royally appointed priests, exhort the people to return to the true God
and to ethical behavior. Before the end of the eighth century the prophets
interpret the threat of an Assyrian invasion as God's warning that he
will use some alien power as an ll1strument to punish his Chosen People
unless they reform. They refuse to reform, and hence-according to Biblical
historians as well as the prophets-God subjects the people of both kingdoms
Jeroboam, Prototype of a "Wicked" King (I Kings 12-14). As soon as he establishes his capital in Shechem, Jcroboam sets up two golden calves as objects of worship, representative of Yahweh "as the God of physical forces." 28 Worship at these two shrines is considered by the Deuteronomic compilers to be apostasy to the Lord. Matters are made worse by Jeroboam's appointment of a priesthood not derived from the house of Levi. Despite the protests of an unnamed "man of God" and despite the withering of his own hand (sent by God as a punishment for his apostasy), Jeroboam persists in his evil ways. The historian is particularly bitter about Jeroboam's wickedness and seems to feel that this king is in large measure responsible for Israel's future apostasy;
Most "Wicked" King (I Kings 16:29-22:40), Accordirlg to the
author of I Kings 16, Ahab, the son of the strong king Omri, does more
to provoke the Lord to anger than had all the kings of Israel who formerly
reigned. Not only does he follow the idolatrous ways of Jeroboam, but
also he marries the Sidonian (Phoenician) princess Jezebel,* who persuades
him to worship Baal** and to build altars to him. Repeatedly Ahab is
warned by the prophet Elijah to mend his ways and to worship God, but
the king obstinately refuses to obey.
Ahab leads his
country in two wars against Syria (Ch. 20). For a long time, apparently,
Ahab has been a vassal of Ben-hadad, the Syrian king. Now Ben-hadad
besieges Samaria, Ahab's capital, reduces its garrison to a desperate
state, and demands its complete capitulation, including the surrender
of the silver, the gold, and the wives and the children of Ahab. Ahab
agrees; but when Ben-hadad insultingly orders him to allow; Syrian servants
to search his house and take anything they please, Ahab (after a conference
with his subjects) decides to resist. A small body of Israelites takes
the overconfident Syrians completely by surprise, throws them into a
panic, and then, with the aid of several thou
From A Handbook
for Know Your Bible Study Groups, @ 1959 by Abingdon Press. By permission
of the publisher.
Because the Syrians
have belittled his power, the Lord punishes them by allowing the Israelites
to defeat them again-so decisively that Israel frees itself of vassalage.
Ben-hadad himself is captured but is mercifully set free by Ahab. In
a passage (I Kings 20:35-43) written by an author inimical to Ahab,
a prophet predicts disaster for this king for making peace with the
Syrians instead of destroying them utterly.
After three years
of friendly relations with Syria, Ahab decides to seize some disputed
territory held by the Syrians (I Kings 22:1). He and Jehoshaphat, the
king of Judah, form an alliance and begin preparing for war. As is his
custom, Ahab invites four hundred prophets-"men of God," not
prophets of Baal-to ask whether he should attack the _Syrian forces;
all these prophets encourage him to proceed with the invasion, and one,
named Zedekiah, even exhibits some iron horns to symbolize how Syria
will be gored. There is, however, another prophet, Micaiah, who has
not been consulted because he has a reputation for foretelling evil.O
When Jehoshaphat insists on hearing what Micaiah has to say about the
matter, that prophet lies at first and predicts success for Israel,
because he is afraid that he will be punished if he again foretells
disaster t Ahab, however, apparently senses that Micaiah is lying and
therefore urges him to tell the truth. Thereupon the prophet predicts
disaster for the expedition and death for Ahab; furthermore, he reveals
why the four hundred prophet.s have predicted falsely: when God was
seeking a way to bring about Ahab's downfall, one of his spirits volunteered
to be a "lying spirit" in the mouths of the four hundred,
and God accepted the offer. (Thus the Biblical author intimates that
God sometimes uses devious means to motivate human conduct.)
When Zedekiah hears
Micaiah's oracles, he angrily strikes his rival on the cheek and asks:
"Which way went the Spirit of the Lord from me to speak untothee?"
Micaiah replies that Zedekiah will receive the answer to that question
when hiding (presumably from the Syrians) in his inner chamber.
Believing the predictions
of the four hundred prophets, Ahab throws the lone dissenter Micaiah
into prison and continues with preparations for the battle. But perhaps
he has been shaken by Micaiah's prophecy, for he disguises himself as
a common soldier. Despite this precaution, he is killed by a random
arrow. His blood flows into his chariot, which is later washed in a
pool of Samaria. Some dogs lick up this blood in the pool, and thus
is fulfilled an old prophecy made by Elijah (see below, p. 129).
of a "Wicked Woman" (l Kings 16:31, 18:4, 19:1-3, 21:5-25;
II Kings 9:30-37). Although relatively few verses of the Bible are
concerned with Jezebel, the wife of Ahab, so great is her reputation
for evil that her name has become a common noun, a synonym for a "wicked
woman." Not only does she reintroduce Baal-worship into Israel,
but she "stirs up" her husband to act with all the despotism
and cruelty of the average Oriental monarch of the era. Furthermore,
she banishes the prophets of the Lord and replaces them with 450 prophets
of Baal and 400 prophets of the groves (local shrines). After Elijah
discredits and destroys her prophets (I Kings 18:17-40), she sends him
a message of the most violent hatred: "So let the gods do to me,
and more also, if I make not thy life as the life of one of them by
to-morrow about this time." She is unable, however, to carry out
her threat because Elijah escapes into Judah. One of her worst crimes
is the instigation of the cold-blooded murder of Naboth; for this Elijah
prophesies that the "dogs shall eat Jezebel by the wall of Jezreel"
(I Kings 21:23).
When the conspirator Jehu kills her son, King Joram,* Jezebel knows that her death, too, is imminent. She takes great pains to beautify herself, painting her face and adorning her head.30 As Jehu enters the gates of Jezreel, she mocks him from her window, comparing him with Zimri, who had gained the throne for seven days by murdering his master. Jehu persuades Jezebel's servants to throw her out the window; then his horses trample her to death. Somewhat later he remembers that she is a king's
(II Kings 9-10). During the reign of Joram (Jehoram), who is one
of Ahab's sons, the prophet Elisha* stirs up a revolution which is destined
to put an end to the "wicked" dynasty of Omri (the father
of Ahab). While Israel is at war with Syria, Elisha sends a disciple
to anoint Jehu, a captain in the Israelitish army, as king of Israel.
Jehu wastes no time in implementing his nomination. He drives furiously*
to Jezreel, where Joram, who is recuperating from a battle wound, drives
in a chariot to meet him. "Is it peace, Jehu?" Joram asks
hopefully. Jehu replies that there can be no peace while the land is
so full of idolatry. Joram flees, but Jehu pursues him, kills him, and
(as an act of retributive justice) throws his body into Naboth's vineyard.***
The people proclaim Jehu king.
The new sovereign
promptly proceeds to obliterate the house of Ahab. At his direction
the elders of Samaria and Jezreel kill all seventy of Ahab's surviving
sons and send their heads to him. Next he lures all the prophets of
Baal into their temple, where he has them slain; he breaks and burns
the sacred pillars and converts the temple into a latrine. Thus he wipes
out the worship of Baal in Israel. The Lord rewards him by promising
that his descendants "unto the fourth generation" will rule
the kingdom. But Jehu allows the people to continue to worship the two
golden calves which Jeroboam set up in Bethel and Dan and to which the
people offered sacrifices as if to gods; therefore he is punished by
having to fight continually against the Syrians, who harass the land
and take all of Israel east of the Jordan.
The Elijah Cycle (I Kings 17-19, 21; II Kings 1:1-17). The prophet Elijah plays so important a role in the drama of Israel that it has been necessary to mention him frequently in the foregoing accounts. Comparable to Samuel as God's agent for select
The Elijah cycle
is based on a series of tales from the Northern Kingdom, written perhaps
as early as 800 B.C. The cycle bears evidence of an oral transmission
over a rather long period: it relates several events which may be considered
legendary (such as the ravens' feeding of Elijah), and it reflects the
popular admiration for the heroic prophet who dared to stand up for
God in de6.ance of the rulers of Israel. In I and II Kings the stories
about Elijah are told with great enthusiasm. Full of vivid pictorial
details and dramatic crises, they are "among the most brilliant
and charming in Hebrew literature and their author an accomplished teller
of tales." 32
DROUGHT (I Kings 17). The abruptness with which the historian introduces
Elijah helps to convey an impression of the "suddenness" 33
and unpredictability of the intrepid old prophet: "And Elijah the
Tishbite, who \Vas of the inhabitants of Gilead, said unto Ahab, As
the Lord God of Israel liveth, before whom I stand, there shall not
be dew nor rain these years, but according to my word." To escape
Ahab's anger, Elijah flees to an uninhabited region, where ravens bring
him food and where he drinks from a brook. ""lien the brook
dries up, he goes into a city and seeks food and drink from a poor vvidow,
whose pIta of po\'erty is piteous: "As the Lord thy God liveth,
I have not a cake, but an handful of meal in a barrel, and a little
oil in a cruse: and, behold, I am gathering two sticks, that I may go
in and dress it for me and my son, that we may eat it, and die"
(I Kings 17: 12). Elijah promises her aid if she will feed him. She
consents, and he
miraculously causes her meal barrel and oil cruse never to become empty
thereafter, "until the day that the Lord sendeth rain upon the
earth." He pedorms another miracle in reviving her dead son.
AT MOUNT CARMEL (I Kings 18)..
In the third year of the drought and famine, in obedience to God's command
Elijah goes back to see Ahab in Samaria. As soon as the king beholds
him, he accuses the prophet: "Art thou he that troubleth Israel?"
Fearlessly Elijah replies, "I have not troubled Israel; but thou,
and thy father's house, in that ye have forsaken the commandments of
the Lord, and thou hast followed Baalim." Then he orders Ahab to
assemble at Mount Carmel all the people of Israel, the 450 prophets
of Baal, and the 400 prophets of the groves. When they have all gathered,
Elijah confronts the people with a disturbing question: "How long
halt ye between two opinions? If the Lord be God, follow him: but if
Baal, then follow him." The people are unable to answer a word.
Next Elijah challenges
the pagan prophets to a contest. The prophets are to prepare one sacrifice
and Elijah to prepare another. Each side will then call on its deity
to send fire to consume its sacrifice. The prophets accept the challenge.
They pray to Baal "from morning even until noon," but nothing
happens to the bullock which they have cut up on their altar. Elijah
mocks them: "Cry aloud: for he is a god; either he is talking,
or he is pursuing, or he is in a journey, or peradventure he sleepeth,
and must be awaked." The prophets )eap on their altar, cry aloud,
and even cut themselves with knives, but still there is no answer. Now
Elijah prepares his altar. Fire falls upon the sacrificial offering
and consumes not only the bullock but also the altar itself and even
the stones and the dust. The people are converted and fall on their
faces and cry out: "The Lord, he is the Godl" At Elijah's
direction they slay all the prophets of Baal. Finally Elijah says that
the drought is at an end, he and Ahab go to Jezreel, and soon rain falls
plentifully on Israel.
AND THE ANOINTING OF ELISHA (I Kings 19). Fleeing again (this time
to escape the wrath of Jezebel), Elijah goes to a wilderness in southern
Judah. There he prays for his own death. An angel brings him bread and
water. A very memorable scene follows. The Lord tells him to go up on
a mountain and to stand there before the Lord. "And, behold, the
passed by, and
a great and strong wind rent the mountains, and brake in pieces the
rocks before the Lord; but the Lord was not in the wind: and after the
wind an earthquake; but the Lord was not in the earthquake: And after
the earthquake a fire; but the Lord was not in the fire: and after the
fire a still small voice."
This is the voice
of the Lord. It tells him to go back north and to anoint Hazael to be
king of Syria, Jehu to be king of Israel, and Elisha to be Elijah's
own successor as a prophet. Elijah obeys the "still small voice"
and sets out. En route he encounters Elisha and casts his mantle upon
him as a token of discipleship.
(I Kings 21). In the town of Jezreel near Samaria a man named Naboth
owns an excellent vineyard, which Ahab covets. He offers Naboth either
another vineyard or money, but Naboth (who regards the property as a
family heritage which cannot rightfully be sold) refuses each offer.
Perceiving her husband's disappointment, Jezebel tells Ahab that she
will procure the vineyard for him and sends two false witnesses to Jezreel
to proclaim that Naboth has blasphemed God and the king and incite the
people to stone him to death. As soon as Ahab hears tllat Naboth is
dead, he takes possession of the coveted vineyard. Then the Lord sends
Elijah to say to Ahab: "Thus saith the Lord, In the place where
dogs licked the blood of Naboth shall dogs lick thy blood, even thine."
In despair, Ahab cries out to Elijah: "Hast thou found me, O mine
enemy?" Elijah foretells that all Ahab's male descendants will
be slain and that dogs will eat the body of Jezebel by the wall of Jezreel.
AHAZIAH (II Kings 1:1-15). Upon the death of Ahab, the king's son
Ahaziah ascends the throne of Israel. Like his father and his mother,
Ahaziah is an idolater and a worshiper of Baal. After ruling only two
years, he is injured by a fall. He sends messengers to inquire of Baal-zebub,
the god of Ekron, whether he will recover. Deploring the king's consulting
of a foreign god instead of Yahweh, Elijah intercepts the messengers
and sends them back to Ahaziah. Three times the king dispatches soldiers
to arrest the prophet, who twice calls down heavenly fire upon the soldiers
(the third time the leader of the soldiers begs Elijah for mercy) and
then visits the king and prophesies his early death. Ahaziah dies soon
THE ASCENSION OF ELIJAH (II Kings 2:1-15). Several years later, Elijah knows that it is time for him to depart this world.
The Elisha Cycle (II Kings 2-9, 13:14-21). As a prophet, Elisha is somewhat less impressive and less admirable than Elijah. Whereas the latter seems to be interested primarily in religion and righteous conduct and to be remote and aloof, appearing suddenly at moments of crisis, Elisha is greatly concerned with political matters, and he is ubiquitous--always on hand to participate in whatever is going on. Although he is zealous in helping those who serve the Lord, Elisha is sometimes cruel and bloodthirsty; witness his instigation of Jehu's plot against the whole family of Ahab.
Elisha cycle has less literary merit than the stories about Elijah;
it is less organically unified and "more filled with the miraculous
and the legendary." 34
OF ASSISTANCE (II Kings 2:19-22; 3:11-20; 4:1-44; and 6:1-7). As
Elijah's successor, Elisha immediately begins to perform miracles, usually
to help people in distress.
Four of these marvels
are concerned with providing or purifying food or drink. One of his
first acts is to aid the men of Jericho, whose water supply is bad and
whose land is barren; Elisha "heals" the water by casting
salt into it. On another occasion the combined armies of Israel, Edom,
and Judah, which are waging war against Moab, find that their water
supply is exhausted. Elisha orders the Israelites to dig many ditches;
these he causes to fill up with water. In Gilgal he purifies some poison
pottage by throwing meal into it. And at another time he causes twenty
loaves of barley and a sack of corn to increase so as to be sufficient
to feed a hundred men.
of two of Elisha's miracles to deeds performed by Elijah suggests that
these later stories are in reality "doub-
borrowings from the earlier cycle--a suggestion which gains weight when
one considers how nearly alike the names of the prophets are. In the
first of these two tales about Elisha, he miraculously increases a poor
widow's supply of oil. In the second, he raises a young boy from the
A seventh miracle
of assistance is making an iron axe head (which has fallen into the
Jordan) rise and float.
CURSING THE CHlLDREN (II Kings 2:23-25). Once as Elisha is leaving Jericho, some children rudely make fun of him, shouting: "Go up, thou bald head; go up, thou bald head." Elisha curses them in the. name of the Lord, and two she-bears come out of the forest and tear forty-two of the children. This story, shocking to modern readers, is probably told to inculcate respect for prophets.
(II Kings 5). The most skillfully told of all the stories about
Elisha is that concerning Naaman, commander of the Syrian army, who
has leprosy. Naaman's little maidservant, an Israelitish captive; grieves
over her master's illness and tells him that a prophet in Samaria could
cure him. Naaman goes to Samaria, bearing with him many valuable presentsgold,
silver, and ten festal garments. First he calls upon the king and asks
to be cured. Joram rends his own clothes and asks in despair: "Am
I God, to kill and to make alive, that his man doth send unto me to
recover a man of his leprosy?" When Elisha hears about the king's
predicament, he sends for Naaman and tells him to wash himself seven
times in the river Jordan. Naaman is angry that the cure should be so
simple and asks: "Are not Abana and Pharpar, rivers of Damascus,
better than all the waters of Israel?" His servants persuade him,
however, to try the prophet's prescription. The malady disappears-his
flesh becomes clean "like unto the flesh of a little child."
The miracle convinces him that the Lord is the only God. Filled with
gratitude, he urges Elisha to accept the gifts which he has brought
from Syria, but Elisha refuses them. Then N aaman asks two more favors:
first, that he be allowed to carry back to Syria some Israelitish earth
on which to worship the Lord-apparently because he feels that Yahweh
cannot be worshiped except on such soil; 35 and second, that he be forgiven
in the future for accompanying his master into the temple of the god
Rimmon and appearing to worship the false deity. Elisha grants his requests:
"Go in peace."
OF THE SYRIANS (I.I Kings 6-7). The Syrians and the Israelites are
at war with each other once again. Benhadad of Syria suspects the presence
of spies in his army, because all his maneuvers seem to be known beforehand
by the Israelites. When told that Elisha can divine his secret counsels
and report them to the king of Israel, Ben-hadad sends a great host
to capture the prophet. Elisha's servant becomes terrified, but Elisha
"opens his eyes" and enables him to see the encircling mountains
full of heaven-sent horses and chariots of fire. Then the prophet causes
blindness to fall on all Ben-hadad's men, and he leads them to Samaria,
pretending that he is taking them where they can capture Elisha. In
Samaria he restores their sight and causes King Joram to let them go
peacefully back to Syria.
After a brief truce,
war begins again, and the Syrians besiege Samaria so that terrible famine
comes to the city. The Israelites are reduced to eating asses' heads,
doves' dung, and even their own children. Accused of causing the disaster,
Elisha prophesies that the famine will be ended immediately. The Lord
makes the Syrian army hear a noise like the roaring of a great host
of horses and chariots. Believing themselves to be under attack by the
Egyptians and the Hittites, the Syrians flee in panic, leaving their
food and equipment behind them. The Samarians rush out to seize the
abandoned supplies, and the famine is ended.
of the Throne of Judah (ll Kings 11:1-21). In the Southern Kingdom,
Athaliah, the daughter of Ahab and Jezebel, hearing that her son Ahaziah
is dead, assumes the throne and tries to wipe out all the descendants
of King David in order
Hezekiah, a Virtuous
but Foolish King (II Kings 18-20). Events of great importance take place
in the Southern Kingdom during the reign of Hezekiah, the son of Ahaz.
REFORM (II Kings
18:.1-12). King Hezekiah is very different from his sinful and idolatrous
father. Not only does he worship the Lord, but he removes the high places,
breaks the images, cuts down the groves, and even destroys the brazen
serpent supposedly handed down from Moses-a serpent to which the people
are accustomed to burn incense. For these reforms God gives Hezekiah
victory over the Philistines and (for a while) freedom from the Assyrians.
THE DESTRUCTION OF SENNACHERIB (II Kings 18:13-19:37). Sennacherib, the king of Assyria, captures many fortified cities of Judah, and Hezekiah himself sends tribute-treasures from his own house and from the house of the Lord. Then Sennacherib accuses Hezekiah of trying to enlist the aid of the king of Egypt, whom the Assyrian scoffingly refers to as a "bruised reed." Sennacherib demands more tribute. Next we are introduced to the prophet Isaiah, who is violently opposed to an alliance with Egypt and who delivers God's messages to Hezekiah. The king of Judah seeks Isaiah's advice about increasing the
FOLLY (II Kings
20:12-19). By this time Babylon has become a great power in the
Orient. Baladin, the king of Babylon, sends his son with letters and
a gift for Hezekiah. Most unwisely, the king of Judah shows the young
man all his treasures-"the silver, and the gold, and the spices,
and the precious ointment, and all the house of his armour, and all
that was found in his treasures: there was nothing in his house, nor
in all his dominion, that Hezekiah shewed them not." When Isaiah
hears about this foolish act of vanity, he makes a dire prediction:
"Behold, the days come, that all that is in thine house, and that
which thy fathers have laid up in store unto this day, shall be carried
into Babylon: nothing shall be left, saiith the Lord." Hezekiah
seems undisturbed by this prophecy, so long as he will have peace in
Josiah and Deuteronomic
Reform in the Southern Kingdom (II Kings 22:1-23:30).36 After the reigns
of the "wicked" kings Manasseh and Amon, the "good"
king Josiah succeeds to the throne of Judah. He does that which is right
in the sight of the Lord and walks in all the ways of David, turning
not aside to the right hand or to the left. He also repairs the Temple.
By far the most important event during his reign is the high priest Hilkiah's discovery of the lawbook in the Temple.* When Josiah reads this book and considers how its laws have been ignored by the people of Judah, he is so alarmed that he rends his clothes and commands Hilkiah and others: "Go ye, enquire of the Lord for me, and for the people, and for all Judah, concerning the words of this book that is found: for great is the wrath of the Lord that is kindled against us, because our fathers have not hearkened unto the words of this book, to do according Ul1to all that which is written concerning us." He assembles
Josiah meets an
untimely end (c. 609 or 608 B.C.) in an expedition against an Egyptian
king who is leading a raid on Assyria.
End of Monarchy
and National Independence (II Kings 23:31-25:30). The history of
the reigns of the last four kings of Judah is made up of accounts of
one catastrophe after another. During Josiah's reign a prophetess has
foretold that after Josiah's time the Lord will punish the people of
Judah for their sins. Punishment now threatens in the form of military
invasion--by Babylon from the north and by Egypt from the south.
Jehoahaz, the son
of Josiah, is taken captive by Pharaoh of Egypt, who dethrones him and
places Eliakim, another of Josiah's sons, on the throne. At first Eliakim
(whose name Pharaoh changes to Jehoiakim) pays tribute regularly. But
then he becomes a vassal of Nebuchadrezzar, king of Babylon. After three
years he rebels against Babylon, and so Nebuchadrezzar makes war against
him. The Babylonians are joined by bands of Syrians, Moabites, and Ammonites,
the ancient foes of the Jewish people. "Surely," says the
historian, "at the commandment of the Lord came this upon Judah,
to remove them out of his sight, for the sins of Manasseh, according
to all that he did."
While the war is
still going on, Jehoiakim (who has ruled eleven years) dies and is succeeded
by his son Jehoiachin. This king also does evil in the sight of the
Lord. In the eighth year (597 B.C.) of his reign, therefore, the Lord
allows Nebuchadrezzar to take Jerusalem and to send ten thousand inhabitants
of the country (including Jehoiachin) to Babylon as captives.
gives the Hebrews one more chance. He makes Mattaniah, Josiah's son,
king of Judah and changes his name to Zedekiah. Zedekiah, however, is
sinful, and the Lord causes him to rebel unsuccessfully against Nebuchadrezzar.
A note of hope is preserved in a sort of postscript. The historian mentions that. in the thirty-seventh year of Jehoiachiri's captivity, Evil-merodach, the new king of Babylon, frees the Jewish monarch from prison, allows him to eat at the king's own table, and gives him an annuity for the remainder of his life.